November 10, 2006
What's more impressive about the music of Annuals? That their music is so big and expansive and lush and pretty and complex, or that the band is incredibly, incredibly young? Of course, it doesn't hurt them any that they are extremely talented, and that their debut album is one of this year's true pop treats. But like many young bands, Annuals have been subjected to comparisons with other bands, bands they don't necessarily sound like. What's that like? We had a nice little conversation with bass player Mike Robinson about this and other issues. It's a fascinating look at a talented young band. You read about 'em here…well, not first, but most certainly best!
Tell me a little bit about how you guys got together.
It goes back about seven years. Myself, Adam, the front man, and Kenny, the guitar player, we've been playing music together since we were thirteen or so, and it's always been the three of us. We started out playing pop-punk and little kid music, basically. We stayed together through high school. Zack came on then. We were originally playing under the moniker Sedona--and it still exists, but it's more like a studio project than anything else at this point--but we were all involved in that. Annuals was kind of Adam's thing while we were all doing Sedona. Adam was the drummer in that band. Drums are not exactly an expressive instrument by any means, so he just started writing his own stuff, and it just really caught on. His stuff was way poppier. The Sedona stuff was much more of a technically-based type of thing, and while everybody agreed that the music was good, it just never caught on like we wanted it to. So, you know, we've been together for, like, forever, and Zach joined about three years ago. Anna, the keyboard player, she is Zack's girlfriend, and Nick, the drummer, is an old friend of Zack's. So basically when Zack joined, he brought the rest of the band with him! (Laughs) It's just what we've done, like, in all of high school, we just played music and didn't pay much attention or mind to anything else, for better or worse.
It seems like you guys are getting a lot of attention. How did this come about for such a young, unknown band? Were you playing out a lot?
Yeah, we've been playing locally forever, and then, just by total chance of luck, we were actually on a self-booked tour last summer, a really scrappy situation, where it seemed like every show was impossibly far away from the next, but we took everything we could get, really. But then we got a phone call just as we were leaving Naples, Florida, and it was JC at Ace Fu. Apparently, they'd found us online at Pure Volume, and it really all just fell out of the sky and into our laps. At the same time, it couldn't have come at a better time. We'd been playing together all through high school, and we were ready to hit that crossroads where we were about to get out of school and try to figure out what we were going to do with life, and then they got in touch with us at the most perfect time, and it just got the ball rolling. Since then, other random people have taken interest, and fortunately there's been a lot of good response from a lot of people in the industry, and from there it cumulated and now it's spilling over into blogs. It's really surreal, to be honest with you. We've been on the local band level for so long, and all of a sudden, it's happened. But in a way, it seems like it's taken forever.
It seems like you were not necessarily seeking out all of this attention. I saw Pitchfork and Spin and was impressed by that.
Yeah, and stuff like that, I don't even know where it's coming from, you know? It's just been popping out. I don't even really understand it.
I've seen a lot of comparisons to bands that you don't necessarily sound like. Does that worry you?
It doesn't worry us, because to us, it seems like…well, to mention us in the same sentence as Arcade Fire? Initially, we thought, "Well, Arcade Fire, they're a really great band!" We really like them, but they're not an influence to us at all. We've been playing music this way before we even knew who they were. We first started listening to them, like, last summer. It's very flattering, you know? Very flattering, don't get me wrong. But at the same time, these bands don't really go into the formula that we have in place. I definitely attribute our sound much more to names that no one's ever thought of mentioning. Our most direct influences are ones like Mike Patton, Radiohead, Bjork, and Aphex Twin, and other things like that. It's all chased up into what we're trying to do, but it's way poppier than them. It's really cool, being compared to Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene and Animal Collective, that's really cool. And we're really flattered. But at the same time, no, we don't sound like them and we don't want people to think that we do. We don't want people to hold us up in their shadow. Yeah, so it is a little worrisome, but it's also very flattering.
My take on it is this: from a band like Arcade Fire springs up a hundred bands who want to be Arcade Fire. But only one band is good enough to actually be Arcade Fire. So when I saw the comparisons I was a little concerned, but when I heard the album, I didn't think you sounded like a lot of the bands you were being compared to, and I just wondered where these people were getting such ideas.
Yeah, I guess with Arcade Fire in particular, I think the initial reason why they keep coming up is the way our songs are, they're somewhat similar to theirs, because we try to make it where our songs move around and reach a certain climatic moment where things then kind of explode. We're into that. We're into songs that have a momentum built into them, and Arcade Fire is masterful at that. At the same time, that's also why I worry, because we don't want people to listen to us and then hate us for every reason we don't sound like Arcade Fire. I dunno, it's kind of a weird double-edged sword.
It's cool to be up there on that level, but at the same time, you don't want people thinking that you're merely copying or trying to be something that you are not.
Exactly! We just strive so much to hammer out a unique sound, and I think we've done a decent job, hopefully. It is a little disheartening, I guess, but it's going to happen anyway. To be compared to somebody, that's just the way it is. At least we're being compared to these really great bands. It could be a lot worse. We're appreciative, but at the same time, there is a little bit of trepidation.
I don't really hear one influence, but I hear vibes of sounds, like one moment I'll hear a Sixties vibe, then a more modern vibe in the next song.
Yeah, we kind of try to have each song touch different areas. We listen to everything. Even Brad Paisley, we've been listening to him a lot, just because we never knew about him and we discovered he's an incredible guitar player. We try to bring it all in.
The information I have on you makes it look like Adam's the mastermind, but I don't really get that sense from talking to you.
Adam writes the songs, and he plays damn near every instrument that appears on the record and he records it as well. But Kenny, our guitar player, he's incredible, and he adds a lot into the sound as well. I'll then come in and work on bass parts--it's really a very collective approach, but at the same time, Adam is definitely holding the reins, yet is definitely a group effort and the record wouldn't sound the way it sounds if there wasn't a group effort going into it. Kenny, in particular, he's the highest talent in the band, by far. It's just insane, the technical, complex things you'll hear on Be He Me, and it's thanks to Kenny. He's just incredible at music. And Adam? He's a savant producer, honestly. Me and Adam, we took audio classes in high school, and it was really weird. It was kind of a bullshit class, honestly; like, football players took it and a football coach taught it, but at the same time, we had access to ProTools. We'd skip class and hide out, recording. We had a really great friend who helped us purchase our own recording equipment after high school. Just being on ProTools all the time, Adam has developed an insane sense of recording and producing. You'll hear all kinds of little tricks on the album, and that's all Adam, just going insane. He's got this uncanny ability; he can stay in one place and work on one thing for, like, twenty hours. And he does, all the time. You can really hear it. It's very meticulous, a total OCD approach.
When you perform, how difficult is it for you to reconcile the obvious differences from the studio recording?
We strive harder than anything else we do to make everything sound as much like the record as we can live, but there's a little bit of a twist live. A lot of people say they like us better live than the recording, just because live is much more of a rock and roll experience. It's much grittier and much more energetic and there's a lot of movement, and we try to be as entertaining as we can. We try really hard to make a live show as much like the record as it can be, and I think we do a pretty good job. We've never gotten bad feedback, except for the people who caught us at South by Southwest earlier this year, who caught us in probably one of our worst performances ever! (Laughs)
South by Southwest is sometimes a difficult place to have a good show.
Yeah, that's what we'd been told. We were real bummed out, because we'd never done anything like that before, and we still are a relatively young band, and we hadn't played out of state a whole lot, though we have a small amount. We were really looking forward to it, and then, it ended up being what it was…When we got there, it seemed to me that everybody knew it'd suck except for us, and then we found ourselves on this tiny stage at what I would assume was a jazz club. Basically the stage was able to fit the two drum sets we have when we play live. Everyone else spilled off of it. We couldn't hear each other at all, and it was a really horrible experience. (Laugh) We're definitely a "club" band. If we're on a stage that we can all fit on, we usually do extremely well. But often we do have to struggle to try and overcome from smaller places. Hopefully, we're about to graduate from such places, maybe to a medium venue class with stages that make sense. But we are a big band. The reason we have a lot of stuff -- an annoying amount of stuff, actually-- is because we really are striving to make it sound like the record. Every time we show up to a club, the sound guys are always like, "Oh, my god!' (laughs) We really are, admittedly, a production nightmare. We do what we can, but it's kind of tough.
I did an interview with the band Evangelicals. Their first record was mainly the work of the band's mastermind, recording it by himself, and he didn't really bring in the aspect of the live stage to his recordings, so when they play live, it's nothing like the record.
When people see us live, I think that's when people really get the sense that anything they've read about the band being led by Adam…there's a really wide range of personality in the band, and when people see us live, it really sticks out. I think people put it together, like, "wow, this is really a band," because there's all of us onstage, and it all holds up, and it's not just Adam.
Since the live element of performance is starting to come into play a lot more now, do you think the writing you're doing now reflects that and the limitations that the live element presents?
Honestly, I don't think it's really going to change what we're going to do all that much. There have definitely been many moments during recording, where somebody does something, then we delete it instantly, because we think, "There's no way we could do it live, no matter how cool it might sound." So we do stop ourselves whenever things get to be a little too much, but a lot of the crazy effects and noises like that, we tend to figure out something. On some of the songs, like "Ida, My," since we can't do a total Aphex-wannabe beat live, that part is turned into an overwhelming rock part, and the energy is still insane, and it's a lot of fun to play it that way. So we find a way--I've heard it said that we "rock" live a lot more than you'd expect. That's because we've always been in rock bands, so that element is there.
Plus, I think it's healthy for a band that is performing live not to completely reproduce the studio recording. Obviously, retaining the same elements to the song is important, but changing it up a little bit.
When we do play live, it's very much a whole different element. If you've heard the record, you're going to be entertained, but it is a whole other thing. Even if only minute things change in comparison to the album version, the songs are in their own element. It's its own thing.
Annuals' debut album, Be He Me, is available now on Ace Fu